Author: Leo Akin
Coffee and caffeine are routinely labeled as bad for your health. There have been reports that coffee can cause or contribute to ulcers, insomnia, diabetes, hypertension and high blood pressure. It would seem that there is no good side to coffee. Even though many in the natural health community insist that coffee is bad for our health, the truth is that, in moderation, coffee can produce some profound health benefits. Recent studies have revealed a number of unknown benefits of coffee and most of them involve the positive effects of coffee on the brain.
Coffee and the Brain
The primary reason why most people drink coffee is to stay awake. To make this happen, the caffeine in coffee blocks the actions of a neurotransmitter known as adenosine. Adenosine is an inhibitory neurotransmitter. This brain chemical makes us sleepy and tired. Therefore, by blocking it, caffeine promotes wakefulness and alertness. However, by inhibiting adenosine, caffeine also increases the activities of some of the other neurotransmitters such as serotonin, dopamine, acetylcholine and even norepinephrine.
These are the same set of brain chemicals involved in the regulation of mood, attentiveness and long-term memory. Therefore, caffeine will not only keep you awake but also boost your mood and cognitive performance. And there are clinical evidences to support these stimulant effects of caffeine. For example, a 2011 study published in the Archives of Internal Medicine found that caffeine consumption lowered depression among women by 15%.
Boosting the levels and activities of neurotransmitters such as serotonin and dopamine is one way by which coffee can lower the risk of depression. Other studies also indicate that the antidepressant effect of coffee can be the result of its effect on a growth factor known as BDNF. BDNF or brain-derived neurotropic factor drives neurogenesis by activate brain stem cells. By producing new brain cells, researchers have shown that BDNF can have an antidepressant effect. In fact, the antidepressant benefit of exercise is mostly due to the increased production of BDNF.
Caffeine, Stress and Suicide Risk
There are other benefits to the effects of caffeine on the brain. For example, a 10-year long study found that caffeine can affect how the brain responds to stress. Lastly, a meta-analyses of past studies involving over 200,000 adults showed that drinking 2 – 4 cups of caffeinated drinks per day can halve the risk of suicide (relative to those who drank less than 2 cups per day or decaf coffee). In the study published in the World Journal of Biological Psychiatry, the researchers recognized caffeine as the agent responsible for the lower risk of suicide and also believed that this risk reduction was due to the effects of caffeine on the levels and activities of certain brain chemicals.
Coffee: Beyond Caffeine
Although caffeine is closely associated with coffee, they are in no way equivalent. There are other sources of caffeine and coffee contains other important phytonutrients and compounds besides caffeine. Some health experts believe that consuming coffee is a healthy choice not only because of its caffeine content but also because of the minerals, vitamins and antioxidants present in coffee beans.
The antioxidants present in coffee can significantly reduce oxidative stress by neutralizing harmful free radicals. In addition, these antioxidants can complement the therapeutic effects of caffeine while blunting its unwanted effects. In all, coffee is a nutritionally important whole food while most commercial caffeine drinks are not. Even decaf coffee is inferior to regular coffee because the process of decaffeination removes more than the caffeine in coffee.
Selecting the Right Coffee
Roasted coffee has been shown to contain more neuroprotective compounds than green, unroasted coffee. Therefore, roasted coffee is a better choice for reducing stress, relieving depression and improving memory. In addition, dark roast coffee is also more healthful than light roast coffee. In one study published in the journal, Molecular Nutrition and Food Research, researchers found that dark roast coffee increased the levels of the antioxidants, glutathione and vitamin E, more than light roast coffee did.In other studies, dark roast coffee was found to promote weight loss and protect the lining of the stomach from acidic erosion more than light roast coffee. Therefore, choose dark roast coffee and consume coffee in moderation. A daily intake of 2 – 4 cups of coffee is recommended. Studies found no benefit to consuming more than this amount and the increased caffeine intake may do more harm than good.
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